Osechi Ryori: The Story Behind Traditional Japanese New Year Food

It’s 2017! In Japan, the New Year is one of the most anticipated holidays. Many Japanese mark the arrival of the New Year with age old traditions such as kadomatsu (a bamboo-pine arrangement placed at the entrance of the home), otoshidama (giving money to children), hatsumōde (first trip to a shrine or temple in the New Year) and celebrating with oseochi-ryōri (traditional Japanese New Year food).

The tradition of having osechi-ryōri (御節料理 or お節料理) on New Year in Japan began during the Heian Period (794-1185). Osechi are similar to bento meals, only they are in more elaborate special boxes called jūbako (重箱). The term osechi was derived from o-sechi, meaning a season or significant period. In Japan, New Year’s Day was considered one of the five seasonal festivals in the Imperial Court in Kyoto. In olden times, during the first three days of the New Year, it was unthinkable to use a hearth and cook meals. Osechi was prepared days ahead of the New Year as women were not allowed to cook.

Datemaki. | tokyofoodcast.com

The traditional osechi-ryōri  dishes, served in elegant three- or four-layered laquer jubako boxes, are placed at the center of the table on New Year’s Eve and remain there until the 1st of January. The food is shared with family and friends. Each item of osechi-ryōri represents a particular wish for the next year.

Here are some example of osechi-ryōri and their meanings:

Kuri-kinton = Wealth

Kuri-kinton (sweet chestnuts), literally means “golden dango (sweet dumpling) made of chestnuts.”  Its color, a yellowish-gold, signifies a wish for wealth and a prosperous New Year.

Ise ebi. | midorisyu

Datemaki = Scholarship

Datemaki is similar to tamago yaki (Japanese rolled omelette), only it’s sweet. It’s mixed with hanpen, a traditional fish cake ingredient that makes the omelette fluffier than the tamago yaki. History tells us that important documents and paintings were usually rolled, and because datemaki resembles scrolls, the dish aptly represents a wish for learning.

Kobu-maki = Happiness

A kelp or kobu covering signifies different things. “Kobu” is also referred to as “yorokobu,” which means joy and happiness. Kobu  can also mean many offspring when written as “子生,” a kanji character that represents childbirth.

Ebi = Longevity

The shrimp’s bent back and antennae, resembling a long beard, symbolizes old age. This symbolizes a wish for a long life. The tinge of red is also said to drive evil spirits away.

Kobu maki. | cava_cavien